The Teacher’s Guide to Substance Abuse Prevention: Using Local News and Experts to Make a Difference in Your Community

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A key element in addiction prevention is youth intervention. Research has shown that substance abuse can start as soon as age 12, and early abuse often leads to greater drug involvement.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to combat youth drug culture and media influence. There are many different techniques for teaching students about the dangers of drug use, and perhaps one of the greatest opportunities is making it relevant to their own lives. By using local news stories and expert guest speakers from your area, you may be able to make a bigger impact. When students can learn through a more hands-on, relevant approach, they may heed your warnings more carefully.

This guide will offer advice on using local news and experts to provide current, relevant drug education to students at all levels. Bear in mind that you may need to first consult administration before implementing certain lesson plans or bringing in speakers based on current drug education standards within your school or district. And who knows — if you make a strong enough case, you may be able to help influence new, more effective curriculum for the future!

Local news

It’s certainly important to make the point to your students that drug abuse is a country-wide issue, but sometimes such a broad idea can make the implications difficult to grasp. For example, noting that over 2 million people abuse opioids in the United States illustrates a major problem, but some kids may simply assume that major cities make up most of that percentage — which may make it seemingly irrelevant if you live in a smaller town or suburb. It’s important for them to see how it truly impacts the world they live in each and every day.

You can start with a web search to find local drug abuse news stories. It doesn’t have to be about large-scale busts or an epidemic in your area; it can be as simple as a profile piece about a local recovering addict who’s recently achieved sobriety. If you’re having trouble finding stories on your own, consider reaching out to a local news station or newspaper. Often, reporters who cover local crime or human interest pieces will be able to offer insight or direct you where to find the most up-to-date information for your area.

Local law enforcement is another excellent resource for information on local drug use. If your school has a resource officer onsite, he or she is a great place to start. Otherwise, you can stop by a nearby police department to inquire about who to speak with. Make sure to mention you’re an educator — you may even want to bring along your school ID — so they realize you aren’t looking for a media specialist. There may be divisions or individual officers who specialize in youth outreach that will have all the information you need on-hand.

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Try to tailor the information you gather to your particular audience. If you’re teaching at an elementary level, for instance, it might be too intense to cover how many overdoses the local hospital sees each year. Instead, stick with more general facts — like the estimated percentage of your area that suffers from a substance use disorder — that demonstrate the risks without potentially traumatizing the children. It is possible to express the dangers of drugs without resorting to fear tactics, which have actually been shown to be ineffective and in some cases, actually counter-productive.

Research shows that drug education programs that involve significant instructor-student interaction tend to be the most successful, so make it an open discussion in the classroom. You can even make it a weekly social studies or current events project: you or your students can bring in local news related to alcohol or drug abuse and then discuss. Why does addiction seem to be (or not be) a problem in your area? Which drugs are most common? Is there a certain demographic that’s at the highest risk?

You can even incorporate prevention education into your science class by studying the way addiction works. Younger students can look at addiction and its status as a disease, while older students can take a closer look at how it specifically affects the brain. There are constantly new breakthroughs in addiction science and nearby universities may even have ongoing studies you can discuss.

When using news pieces, it’s important to take note of how the information is presented. Take the opportunity to evaluate the coverage with your students. For example: your class reads an article about a woman who was arrested for selling drugs out of the home she shares with her husband and children. Are there any insinuations — however unintentional — that the reporter seems to make about the woman’s character? Does the writer simply report the story, or do certain observations reveal any kind of bias? If so, what does your class make of this? Do they feel that she is inherently “bad” because of the situation she put her family in, or do they feel a sense of empathy for her struggle to make ends meet? Let everyone speak their mind and welcome all opinions, but be sure to stress one important point: drug abuse does not in itself make someone a terrible person.

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It’s important to cover the humanity aspect of drug addiction for several reasons. First, you never know what a child may be dealing with at home; there could easily be a parent or other family member who struggles with an addiction, and implying that their disease makes them “bad” can create all kinds of problems for the child. Second, you don’t want to send the message that if your students ever do try drugs, they’re automatically bad. Some people use substances as a way to cope with their underlying mental health issue, while others may be pressured into experimenting and end up succumbing to an overwhelming physical dependency. Make the distinction, though, that a substance use disorder certainly doesn’t excuse breaking the law or any other negative behaviors, but it can make a slippery slope even more dangerous.

Perhaps one of the most important pieces of news to introduce to your class is the prevalence in their immediate environment: your school. Some schools conduct blind surveys to establish where students stand with drug use and abuse, and to evaluate a need for more or different prevention methods. If your school hasn’t conducted this kind of survey within the last few years, talk to your administration about it. Students tend to assume that everyone is drinking or using drugs, but in reality the number of youth drug abusers tends to be less than the majority of students. Eliminating the idea that “everyone does it” is crucial because in fact, most people don’t. This can make a major impact when it comes to peer pressure.

Guest speakers

Bringing in experts to speak to your students is another great way to round out your drug education and prevention programs. Try to think outside the box: reach out to your local police department’s narcotics division or a nearby addiction treatment facility. Getting a unique perspective is not only potentially more powerful, it can create a more meaningful and long-lasting impression.

If you do opt to bring in a member of law enforcement, talk to him or her about the kinds of topics you’d like them to cover. It’s important for students to learn things like the street names of dangerous drugs and how to identify them, but go deeper. Ask the officer to share a story about a particularly memorable drug bust, for instance: was there a crack house they’ll never forget? An addict who ended up asking for the officer’s help in finding a rehabilitation center? Again, avoid using scare tactics, but take advantage of having someone with first-hand experience into the gritty world of addiction. Teenagers often get the idea that drug abuse is somehow glamorous, and are appalled to see what a difference reality is compared to what they see on television or hear in popular music.

If you find that a nearby college or university is conducting addiction research or has an addiction expert on staff, reach out about having someone come to your class as a guest speaker. Those who study substance abuse closely will not only have a great appreciation for youth prevention and likely be eager to help, but they may also have fine-tuned techniques for making the information more accessible to kids and teens. See if they’re open to giving a presentation, then holding a Q&A for further understanding.

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Addiction treatment centers are another great option for expert guest speakers. Recent rehab graduates may be keen to your cause, especially if they have children of their own. Addiction counselors could be an even more unique option — many have battled substance use disorders of their own, plus they’ve helped dozens of people (or more) attain lasting sobriety through their jobs. This can be an important part of the humanity aspect of drug education, as students may be surprised to see that addiction can affect anyone: their neighbor, the grocery store worker they see every week, or even the loved one of a close friend.

If you’re able to recruit a recovering addict as a speaker, let them know your goals for the presentation. Perhaps you’re trying to show your students that anyone can find themselves at the mercy of an addiction, even “normal” people with “normal” lives. Or maybe your speaker started using at a young age and can share insight into how quickly and easily a problem can escalate. They may offer insight into the stark contrast between the first hit of a drug and the last: from experimentation to crippling physical and mental dependency. They may even be willing to share how their substance use disorder ultimately stemmed from a battle with depression — how drugs may have seemed like the answer, but ultimately made things worse. Meet with the speaker ahead of time to discuss what you’ve covered in your prevention education to date, and any debates that have arisen in your class about the topic. They don’t necessarily need to call out a specific disagreement, but their presentation could offer important insight to clear up misconceptions some students may have.

A rehab graduate, especially one who started using drugs in their youth, can also be an excellent coach in how to say no. See if they’d be willing to share how it all started: how did they first encounter drugs? Was it offered by a friend? Did they decide to “try” a parent’s prescription pain medication out of boredom? Were they trying to impress a classmate? How did they respond initially, and looking back, how do they wish they’d responded? See if your speaker would be willing to roleplay with students and offer advice on staying strong against temptation. They probably thought their first time would be their only time or that they’d be able to maintain control amid increased using, so ask them to tie in the shift from experimentation to addiction.

A new youth prevention program called Preventure has been recently tested in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands, and has shown tremendous promise. It operates around the idea that most at-risk youth can be identified early, and focuses on working with those who exhibit specific personality traits that increase their likelihood of substance abuse. Preventure is unique in that it doesn’t take a blanket approach to prevention — instead, it works to identify the students most likely to fall victim to substance abuse and help them overcome the specific trait that puts them at risk. Preventure is a multi-step, somewhat sophisticated system, however, and would require the permission and cooperation of your school’s administration.

Finally, do what you can to be a resource for your class. Consider allowing office hours where students can speak to you — be it about your prevention program, trouble with school, or even problems at home. A strong school connection can be an important prevention tool, and having a strong adult role model is an important aspect, as well. You may not be able to be with your students every moment of every day to ensure they make the best choices, but being a consistent outlet of support and encouragement is one of the best ways to be ever-present in their minds.

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